Easy Chair — From the January 2013 issue

Second Chance

Download Pdf
Read Online

Inauguration Day is upon us. And it seems like only yesterday that the colossal, overheating machinery of democracy, which had been running in high gear for almost two years, finally powered down. The resources marshaled on its behalf defy human comprehension. A few ballpark numbers: an estimated $6 billion was flushed down the tubes over the course of the campaign. An estimated 300 million of those dollars were directed to their targets by superconsultant (and Fox News tantrum thrower) Karl Rove. An estimated 60 million of them were ponied up by a single man, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. An estimated 1 million TV commercials clogged the nation’s airwaves. And an estimated seventeen months were filled with wall-to-wall rhetoric — beginning on the day in June 2011 when the full complement of Republican presidential hopefuls conducted their first debate in New Hampshire.

Do you even remember their names, reader? Let each roll off your tongue, and savor the receding memories. There was Newt Gingrich — the bitter, familiar one. Michele Bachmann — the confused, panicked one. Rick Perry — hair. Ron Paul — Constitution. Herman Cain — pizza. Rick Santorum — coal-mining grandfather, sweater-vest. Mitt Romney — hair, Olympics. Only after fourteen months did this Combat of the Seven yield a champion to go forth against the Democrats.

The battle now joined, the mighty rivals fought over the same swing states as last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. They rallied the same constituent groups. They slagged one another with the same stereotypes used in every election since 1968. They fielded the customary armies of strategists and fund-raisers and communications directors and doorbell ringers. The advances and retreats of this army were then followed by a second expeditionary force — an International Brigade of journalists who jammed the campaign jets, begged for a comment, clustered around the Hamilton County Board of Elections office in Ohio, and ultimately assumed the starring role themselves, pinching and poking and waving at their touch-activated, data-dredging Magic Walls.

And then it was over. Once the numbers were in, both winner and loser spoke sagely about bipartisan togetherness. Every pundit worth his blue blazer interpreted the results in the same, time-honored manner: as a victory for centrism. Both parties, they declared, had work to do. Republicans needed to move to the center in order to court the Latinos, the young, the single mothers. Democrats needed to move to the center simply to appease their pouting opponents. No, wait: Democrats had already moved to the center, and this election vindicated their wisdom.

In other words, we were back where we had started. Like some kind of electoral Battle of Verdun, this costly triumph had shifted the front lines only slightly. House, Senate, and Oval Office all stayed in the same hands. All those commercials, debates, rallies, speeches, books, profiles, and columns had no more changed the world than a season’s worth of Major League baseball or a feud between American Idol judges.

And now that the smoke has cleared, we are face-to-face with the great overlooked subject of 2012. Namely: What will Barack Obama do with his second term?

The president did tell us his plans, of course. Virtually no one paid any attention to what he said, but he said it nonetheless. For the record, the document was called The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan for Jobs & Middle-Class Security, and it was released during the final, fevered weeks of the campaign. It contained, among other things, a vague promise to encourage American manufacturing, which turned out mainly to be a way of calling attention to the president’s 2009 bailout of the auto industry. Obama also filled its pages with sweet talk about small business, bowing to the political god of the year. He rhapsodized about clean energy, education, and fair taxes, and wrapped the whole thing up with a not-very-reassuring reassurance that “our problems can be solved.”

Even now, Barack Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters are strangely muted on the subject of his second-term plans. Oh, they are excited by his victory. Some think it portends the final destruction of conservatism and the coming of better days — a liberal millennium to match the deferred Rovian dream of a permanent majority. But when you get down to specifics, their vision of Obama Redux is always couched in reactive, even passive terms. Rather than anticipating forceful leadership in the FDR mold, they pray that the president will adroitly handle whatever cards he is dealt and triumph by the simple virtue of remaining in the game. His continued presence in the Oval Office, for example, will be enough to ensure that Obamacare gets implemented as it was planned almost three years ago. Whatever he does to keep the nation from tumbling over the “fiscal cliff” will look heroic, since the alternative — which he can achieve by doing nothing — is acceptable to neither party. Nerviest of all is the expectation, expressed by Andrew Sullivan, that as the economy inevitably recovers, Americans will come to realize at long last that they love Obama, as they did Ronald Reagan. Such audacious hopes!

To find someone who sincerely believes that Barack Obama is going to preside over his second term as a strong, determined progressive, you must make your way far to the right. There, the panicked consensus holds that he will remake the nation as dramatically as did Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. There, and only there, will you be told that Obama is preparing to tackle the unemployment problem by establishing a new Works Progress Administration of the kind I called for in this magazine’s pages back in December 2011. Of course, for the true believers who make this assertion — Aaron Klein and Brenda J. Elliott, for example, whose new book, Fool Me Twice, follows up on their earlier The Manchurian President and Red Army — the idea of a resurgent WPA is the ultimate slacker-coddling nightmare.

But as I hacked my way through Fool Me Twice’s terrifying liberal dystopia, whose particulars are backed up by diligent research in the John Birch Society’s flagship magazine, I wanted to cheer. It all sounded great to me. According to Klein and Elliott, a second Obama term will bring us cuts in military spending, a single-payer system of universal health care, methodical plans to fight global warming, and a mandate that would require all government projects to “buy American” — this last outrage supposedly a result of Obama’s anxious solicitude for organized labor!

As it happens, there is another Obama campaign document that tells us far more about his second-term intentions. I am referring to the now-legendary interview the president gave to the Des Moines Register two weeks before Election Day. At first, Obama campaign officials had insisted that the interview be off-the-record, and only later did they agree to its publication. The president, perhaps assuming that his remarks would remain private, was unusually candid — and what he promised was anything but four years of nationalized banks and sharia law.

[*] “[W]e can get what is the equivalent of the Grand Bargain,” Obama told the paper. He also spoke of his hopes for “immigration reform,” figuring that Republicans would be eager to placate Latino voters after driving them away for the past few elections.

Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that his real policy ambition was the same as always: to achieve the Grand Bargain.[*] Which is to say, a fiscal deal between the parties that would enact the centrist dream agenda all at once by cutting spending, increasing tax revenue, and (in at least one version of it) “reforming” entitlements. The Great Conciliator in the White House has longed for such a bargain for years. In pursuit of it, he created the Bowles–Simpson commission, then a special committee chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, then led his own series of meetings and horse-trading sessions. (And that’s not counting the failed congressional “Super Committee” of late 2011.)

Each of these efforts saw Democrats offering to permanently shrink the size of government. The Bowles–Simpson proposal even suggested cutting Social Security benefits and raising the retirement age, both utterly unthinkable to a traditional liberal. But with every effort, the push for a Grand Bargain foundered on total Republican resistance to tax increases — and the resulting string of failures finally culminated in the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011.

Ah, but this time, things just might be different. To some degree, Obama won reelection on a promise to increase the taxes paid by the rich. Appearing to recognize this aspect of the president’s victory, House Speaker John Boehner declared on November 7 that the G.O.P. was “willing to accept new revenues” — a mealymouthed formulation that at least leaves the door open to tax hikes, especially if they’re disguised as closed loopholes and quashed deductions. In return, argued Boehner, Democrats needed to acknowledge that Social Security and Medicare were “the root of the problem.” Maybe this time, both men will get what they want. And oh, how awesome that will be.

Another term for the Grand Bargain might be “austerity” — the punitive economic reflex that has driven much of Europe into deep recession. Austerity proceeds from the reasonable-sounding premise that government must cut back spending during hard times, just as everyone else does. However, this practice actually serves to worsen slumps and recessions rather than cure them. That in turn reduces tax revenues, thereby pumping up deficits and making the need for further austerity seem even more urgent. Such a bargain might be grand, but it might also be stupid and self-destructive. Why does the president crave it so?

When the Obama Administration was young and orthodoxy was on the ropes, the president was a dogged foe of austerity: he secured the passage of a large stimulus package, which ballooned the federal deficit even as it cushioned the blow of the recession. And he didn’t wait to enact some sweeping Treaty of Dupont Circle, either. He passed the stimulus over the noisy and nearly unanimous objections of the Republicans and simultaneously flew in the face of the city’s traditional predilections.

Washington’s most prominent residents have always had trouble understanding the economic problems of the country outside the Beltway. Other Americans grasp the symbiotic relationship between the economy at large and the government’s balance sheet. Washingtonians, however, view the government’s own fiscal situation — meaning the federal deficit — as something autonomous and detached from the nation’s sweaty, second-wave struggles. The deficit is thought to be a problem all on its own, a disaster separate from and comparable to the recession itself.

Recall, in this connection, one of the strangest rhetorical thrusts made by Joe Biden during his debate with Paul Ryan. The subject was the high unemployment rate and the lingering economic slump, and Biden began like this: “They talk about this Great Recession [as] if it fell out of the sky, like, ‘Oh my goodness, where did it come from?’ ” I was excited to hear this, thinking sarcastic old Joe was about to drop some pungent knowledge about financial deregulation on the naïve Young Gun across the table from him. But no:

It came from this man [meaning Ryan and, by extension, the Republican Congress of the Bush years] voting to put two wars on a credit card, to put at the same time a prescription-drug benefit on the credit card, [and] a trillion-dollar tax cut for the very wealthy. I was there. I voted against him. I said, ‘No, we can’t afford that.’ And now all of a sudden these guys are so seized with a concern about the debt that they created.

Had I heard correctly? Yes: Biden had started on a history of the Great Recession and switched in midstream to a history of the federal budget deficit, as though that was what caused the slump. He got the relationship backwards. Of course the deficits of the Bush years were irresponsible, but they didn’t crash the economy — Wall Street did that. And that crash, in turn, is what really drove the deficit through the roof, not the other way around.

Biden’s cognitive fumble didn’t draw the kind of Beltway beatdown his other blunders earned during the campaign. That’s because what he said is not really considered an error in this burg. While the rest of the nation worries about unemployment and bankruptcy and the great corporate rip-off, people in D.C. worry about the deficit. The last category makes sense to the Washington mind; the other stuff is statistics.

When elite Washingtonians cluck about the federal deficit, moreover, they do so in a highly predictable way. The moral symbolism of the issue is always the same: tackling deficits is supposed to be the highest calling of statesmanship, the “hard decisions” that a real leader must make. And the solution to the deficit challenge is also, always, the same. Washingtonians not only think they know what that solution is but also tend to assume that every responsible, educated person either agrees with them or is some kind of demagogue. You know what I’m talking about: the evil entitlements, which must be reformed before they destroy American civilization. Medicare and Social Security, those sucking chest wounds in our body politic, simply cannot be allowed to continue festering as they have in the past.

I have heard some version of this story line since the day I met my first congressional staffer back in the 1980s. I’ve heard it from Democrats as well as Republicans; from losers as well as winners. Indeed, I read it just yesterday in The Price of Politics, by that consummate Washington insider, Bob Woodward. His book is, naturally, about the search for the Grand Bargain. And in a concluding passage, the author blames Obama for failing to be presidential enough to solve what everyone knows is the True Problem. “Unsustainable entitlement spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security,” laments Woodward, “highlighted by Republican House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and familiar to all informed politicians and economists, including the president and Boehner, has been left largely unaddressed.”

I added those italics to Woodward’s sentence, reader, and I did it to emphasize the kind of cosmic clubbiness that lurks behind the Washington consensus. There is no amount of evidence or argument that will budge this fixed verdict about social insurance; everyone who is “informed” knows it to be true. Everyone who is “informed” agrees. Knowing it, agreeing on it — these things are the price of admission to Woodward’s smug, happy world.

Barack Obama’s Democrats just won a resounding triumph in what was advertised as the great ideological face-off of our times. What we the people chose, according to this viewpoint, was social insurance, universal health care, a strong regulatory state. What this town urges on President Obama, unfortunately, is something quite different: an imaginary armistice between the two parties, purchased at the cost of the very things his supporters think they just voted for. It is a recipe for greatness credible to the soi-disant “informed,” maybe. But to nearly everyone else, it rings with the hollow and obsolete magical thinking of Washington, D.C.

These are the childish things Barack Obama must put away in his second inaugural address. The path of destiny leads elsewhere.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Single Page
Share
undefined

More from Thomas Frank:

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content
Close

Please enjoy this free article from Harper’s Magazine.